Stressed? Start Backpacking

Startling research reveals the backcountry melts tension.

Forget Freudian theory, the couch, and tranquilizers. As some therapists have discovered, hitting the trail and temporarily reverting to the primitive is the best way to relax.

Not that this comes as any huge surprise to veteran trail hounds. Most of us have long known the benefits of walking away from urban life and getting temporarily "lost" in the backwoods. But now our findings are becoming more mainstream and "official," so to speak, thanks to researchers like Dr. Horst Mueller, clinical psychologist in Alberta, Canada. Consider his views on the lowly campfire, for example.

"Its flickering light brings you into an alpha-wave state," Dr. Mueller says. Alpha wavelengths are those created by meditation and deep relaxation; they lower stress and give you an overall sense of enhanced well-being and creativity.

Dr. William F. Thorneloe, a hiker and psychiatrist near Atlanta, Georgia, says walking down a trail creates a somewhat meditative, Zenlike state.

When hikers experience this state, "they have little awareness of hills or obstacles, such as streams and scrambles," Dr. Thorneloe says. "They become transfixed in thought, emotion, or a sense of simply 'being there.'"

So the next time life gets you all worked up, head for the hills. It's just what the doctor ordered.